Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

Characteristics of Saturn's FUV aurora observed with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph



[1] We analyze a set of 15 FUV images obtained between October 1997 and January 2001 with the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), providing a good view of Saturn's south auroral oval. It is found that the morphology and brightness distribution of the aurora are dynamical with variations occurring on time scales of hours or less. The dayside main oval lies between 70° and 80° and is generally brighter and thinner in the morning than in the afternoon sector. The afternoon sector is characterized by more diffuse emission at higher latitudes. Weak emission is also observed poleward of the main oval up to the pole. A spot of enhanced auroral precipitation, tentatively identified as the optical signature of the dayside cusp, is sometimes observed poleward of the main oval in the noon sector, especially during periods when the morning arc is not fully developed. A spiral structure of the main oval with arcs at two latitudes in the same sector is occasionally observed. The brightness of the main oval ranges from below the STIS threshold of 1 kR of H2 emission up to ∼75 kR. The total electron precipitated power varies between 20 and 140 GW, that is, comparable to the Earth's active aurora but about two orders of magnitude less than on Jupiter. An increasing trend of the precipitated power between the 1997 and the 2000–2001 observations may be related to the rising solar activity. Six spectra of the aurora in the noon sector covering the 1200–1700 Å range are dominated by emissions of the Lyman-α line and H2 Werner and Lyman bands. Their comparison with a synthetic model of electron excited H2 emissions indicates the presence of a weak absorption below 1400 Å by a column of methane ranging between 7 × 1015 and 2 × 1016 cm−2. The corresponding energy of the primary auroral electrons is estimated 12 ± 3 keV, using a low-latitude model atmosphere based on Voyager occultation measurements. The main oval brightness and the characteristic electron energy are generally consistent with recent models of Saturn's aurora, which colocate the main oval with the narrow upward field-aligned current system associated with departure from plasma corotation near the open-closed field line boundary. The latitude of the bright morning arc is somewhat lower than model predictions based on the plasma flow velocity measured by Voyager in the middle magnetosphere.